The New England Patriots placed the franchise tag on Wilfork on Monday against all of his wishes. After the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Ravens, the defensive lineman addressed the matter at his locker and told a crowd of media it would be a slap in the face if he got hit with the franchise tag.
The Patriots’ two-week window in which they could place the tag on Wilfork ends Thursday, and the team announced it is trying to work on a long-term extension with the six-year veteran. If they failed to designate Wilfork as their franchise player, he would have been free to speak to other teams without restriction, and he might have been the most sought-after free agent on the market.
Now that Wilfork has been franchised, he can still negotiate with other teams, but any team that wishes to sign him would be forced to give the Patriots a pair of first-round draft picks. Quite frankly, that would be an idiotic price for another team to pay.
As the franchise player, Wilfork has no leverage against the Patriots. He can hold out if he’d like, but he must report to the team by Nov. 16 or he will lose a service year and must play under the same contract in 2011. Plus, Wilfork will want to collect his $7 million paycheck, which is more than double his salary from last season. By holding out, Wilfork would face fines and won’t receive a prorated portion of his salary.
While $7 million is a bargain for a player of Wilfork’s caliber, it would still be in the Patriots’ best interest to sign him to a long-term extension. The two sides have until July 15 to reach a long-term deal, or he’ll remain as the franchise player for the 2010 season. Certainly, the Patriots have been criticized in the past for their use of the franchise tag, but they were able to reach a long-term agreement after tagging kicker Adam Vinatieri in 2002.
Therefore, it’s probably a good sign that the Patriots waited a week and a half to tag Wilfork. It would have been a sign of poor faith if they slapped him with the tag Feb. 11, which was the first day teams were allowed to designate the franchise tag. By holding off until Monday, it appears as though the two sides might have already been working on a contract extension.
By the same token, though, Monday’s franchise designation could indicate how far apart the two sides really are in terms of contract negotiations. This could definitely be a negotiating tactic for the Patriots, but it’s also possible this maneuver could have angered the Wilfork camp.
If the two sides fail to reach an agreement by July 15, this episode could have detrimental effects in the future. First, the Patriots have to wonder if they’ll get the same effort out of Wilfork, who has been a model citizen in Foxborough in the hopes the team will reward him with a long-term contract. While he’s always been an extreme professional, it’s never easy to forecast how players react after they’ve been angered at the negotiating table.
But it’s not just Wilfork the Patriots have to worry about. They’ve got guys in the locker room such as safety Brandon Meriweather (signed through 2011), wide receiver Wes Welker (2011) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (2012) who have all been paying close attention to this situation. They saw Wilfork act the right way, report to all of his mandatory summer workouts and even play hurt during his contract year. Yet, Wilfork hasn’t been rewarded for it just yet.
Even further than that, free agents and draftees will be more aware of the Patriots’ business patterns. Until a rookie pay scale is put in place, the team’s draft picks — and their agents — might try to be more aggressive with their contract demands because of the uncertainty over a second contract years down the road. If they know they could be held hostage by the organization, via restricted free agency or the franchise tag, they might be looking for more loot in their rookie deal.
Without giving Wilfork a long-term contract, the Patriots could be entering a more dangerous territory than they have in the past because Wilfork is so well liked and his work ethic is so strongly praised. Yeah, the players understand football is a business, but the owners also have to understand the players don’t want to be treated like just another number.
Right now, that’s how Wilfork feels.
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